Woke up this morning to the most terrible news. 6:30 am and I was woken up by Matu's phone call from Dhaka - Rafique died last night of a heart attack in the US.
It was difficult, it was impossible to process this news in the moment, even as it is now, 6 hours later. Rafique was the gentlest, the sweetest of kids in our A-level class, the kid with the nicest smile, never a harsh word to anyone, never a voice raised in anger. Simply never. My enduring memory of him, even though I had not seen him these last 18 years, is that sweet sweet smile, as if he would happily take on all the world's cares to make other people's lives a little smoother, a little easier.
Kring! kring! at 6.30 am - and then the news. Immediately went on Facebook, which is where we all share our griefs and joys these days, the collective village square of the digital mind in the globalized world of 2012. Asif had shared the news on the Willes site, and AIA, Mou, BD etc were all posting their updates. The Dhaka folks obviously all knew by now - Saiful, etc - and I spoke to Asif on Skype for a few minutes, he was trying to get updates from a common friend/boro bhai about Rafique. Zia (Renaad's cousin) chimed in on FB asking what had happened to Rafique and I had to break the news. So down, such low news - how can a guy of 37 die of a heart attack? I called BD - she's the one who'd last seen Rafique among our friends, AIA and BD at BD's Uttara flat when Shabbir and Rafique visited in December - and she said it wasn't as if Rafique was particularly overweight or anything either, he just seemed like a normal regular guy approaching middle age.
In the middle of this I saw a picture of Rafique back in high school days - this time with Rajib Rashid, Ferdous and Zia, among others. Didn't realize there was that crowd too in the background. Realize now it was a Paper Chase picture.
Desperately sad news for all of us. The thought kept coming back to my head that none of my dear friends - my classmates, my brothers - who left for that benighted land ever came to any good, or brought anything positive or gainful out of that existence. Not Asif, not Saiful, not Rafique, not Shabbir, not Imrul. No, not even that unreformed loser/fraud Jazeb who now spends his days and nights playing online poker in Dallas while his wife earns the family bread. Once they boarded that plane, none of those kids ever stood a chance.
Was this the promised land? The land of dreams? "Shopner Desh" America? No. It was more like the land of nightmares, the land that killed all hope. The land that killed their youth and optimism. The land that laid waste to my generation, their bright-eyed plans for the future. Ruined their lives and turned them into bitter, lonely cynics.
What happened to you, my friends? What happened to you, Shabbir, always wisecracking wryly in school? What happened to you, Saiful, and your indomitable soul? What happened to you, Asif, the brightest spark in our universe? What happened to you, Rafique? What happened to your sweet innocence, your quiet romantic spirit?
What happened to you all, my brothers? If I were granted just one wish today, it would be this - I would go back to that time in 1993-94, and I would beg and plead with each one of them - don't board that plane, bondhu, stay back, stay here, stay with us, we'll make our lives as best we can. Stay, don't go. Shabbir stay, Rupam stay, Rafique stay, Saiful stay, Asif stay. Why such waste? Why such wanton waste of unlimited potential?
No answers today, 18 years later. Instead, all I can remember are those bittersweet trips to the airport, that emptiness, that envy, that light-headed longing that marked every time a plane took off from ZIA with a friend inside it, took off for a distant land where they would all (unknown to us) become just so much grease for the insatiable machine. They went in whole human beings, came out as mincemeat, unrecognizable. But how was I to know that then? How were any of us meant to know that? My age has multiplied by two since then, and I can just about or no longer remember that airport feeling - that terrible mix of sadness, nostalgia, and desperate, hopeless jealousy at being left behind, like the last survivors left to grapple it out in a nuclear wasteland, while they the lucky ones were going away to cavort and eat lilies all the livelong day.
They were flying away to America. In the early 1990s in Bangladesh, that was the entire purpose of being born, as far as we could tell.
How differently it all turned out. How so very differently. Those of us, the left-behinds, cobbled together lives that ended up taking some shape, direction, form - some meaning. But what about my comrades? What about my brothers? What did they do wrong? What was their fault? If they had known what was about to happen, if they could foresee the future, would they still have gone?
Last month, I was in Chicago, in Nandita's living room, talking to her about Rafique and that bright flame that he lit for her, that poor little 18-year-old boy whose heart was about to be ripped into shreds, whose life was about to be turned inside out like a sock by the shock of the breakup round the corner. That was when that kid was thrown into the churn. Nandita protested innocence, naturally - said she never knew, never expected or wanted what happened in the end. Maybe, maybe not. But did that rejection kill a little bit of Rafique inside? Did it change him much, at all? So that when he went to the States, he never even came home until almost half a lifetime - his shortened, abbreviated lifetime - had passed?
I called Nandita a little while ago. It fell to me, my sad task, to break the news of Rafique's death to her. She can say what she likes - but deep down they had something deep for each other, the first innocent tendrils of teenage love reaching out across the chasms of awkwardness and fear, reaching out to each other over and above barriers of religion even, reaching out in those endless sunny days in a place called Kakrail in a city called Dhaka. Two people in one time, one place, beating for a while with one heart. One of them dead today, lonely to the end, the other one a couple of thousand miles to the north, surrounded by husband, baby, mother, father. Ensconced in love and warmth and security - things that were denied to poor Rafique these last many years.
Nandita broke down in tears. What else could one do, when faced with the death of someone you liked, someone you loved when you were young and hopeful? Poor girl, she remembers even now Rafique's birthday - 24th of July, just 2 weeks from today. He will always be ageless now, frozen in time while we grow old, wrinkled, grey.
Rafique, who gave me a Bangla book for my birthday in 1992 or was it 1993 - Doorbin by Shirshendu. Rafique the gentlest sweetest kid in our world. The boy who never harmed a fly, never wanted to, would not even know where to begin. When was the last time I spoke to him, or heard his voice? Rafique, when was it I spoke to you last, buddy? I remember one conversation most clearly - in Denton, TX, in my first flat there, that poky hole in Chaparral Apartments behind the EZ9 store, a conversation with him in Atlanta, him sounding broken by the struggle, the struggle of completing a degree after seven years, the struggle of working full-time that entire time, the struggle of trying to make ends meet. The struggle and the disillusion, having the scales fall off your eyes to see the innards of the monster in all its red, raw, bloodthirsty reality.
If I spoke to you again Kacha after that, I don't remember. Forgive me.
Kacha... why Kacha? That was somebody, probably Asif's attempt at teenage punning: Rafique = Raw F*ck = Kacha Ch*da. And that was how an enduring, endearing nickname was born.
So many pictures. So few memories left now. Interspersed thinly across the months and years. What will I remember in 30 years' time? Will I even be alive then? Who amongst us will be left in 2042? Who will be the next to go? Who will be the last one to leave this earth, taking with us forever the memory of sunny afternoons in the early 1990s in Kakrail in Dhaka? Who? Not you, Rafique, old friend. Tui keno choley geli eto aagey, koi choley geli? Koi achhish ekhon, aager theke bhalo achhish to dosto...
Spoke to Saiful in the morning, spoke to Mou in Saudi and Rusputtin in Atlanta in the afternoon. Saiful it was who gave a hint of the howling loneliness of Rafique's last years, when the girl called Snigdha was long gone, the girl Saiful branded a user. Saiful read out the transcript of an FB chat Rafique had with Ahad's cuz Sujan - wherein Rafique said things like "I don't have a life, I have an existence" or "Girls don't seem to like me... every time I mention marriage, they run away".. or saddest of all, "when I see my colleagues playing with their children, I feel like I missed that boat"..
To me those sounded like the words of a single man in his late 30s plumbing the depths of his soul and coming up empty-handed. As soon as I heard the news in the morning, that was the refrain running through my head - risk factors, single male, approaching middle age, living alone, risk factors glowing red, longevity diminished right there by a decade or more? How long would I live if I made a runner from my marriage now? Just how long?
Do I make him out to be a more tragic figure than he really was? Given how things turned out, how can I even reach that conclusion?
Rafique dosto, you should have given yourself a chance. When Saiful read out your lines, all I could think, all I could speak was my deep desperate desire to hold on to all of you, to hold you back, tie you back in Dhaka, prevent you physically from going to the land of death - death of hope, death of the spirit, and Rafique, tor jonno death now in the most literal, unforgivable, irreversible sense.
Who will be the last one of us to remember that there was once a sweet dear little boy called Rafique who was inwardly drawn, quiet and thoughtful, gentlemanly to a fault? Who will remember that the sad sweet boy once fell in love with a girl, that he used to ride on a bike around town with his friends, boys with the name of Asif and Saiful and Ahad and Mahatab? All of which happened twenty years ago in a place called Dhaka?
The tributes flow in to Facebook. People are waking up to the fact of the loss, especially in America - Shahreen and Humi, Nandi and Munaiza. But the boy is gone.
Rafique, that beautiful friend of our long ago years, is dead. We miss you already, buddy, I miss you, even I did not know the second detail of your life. Facebook makes complacent friends of us all.. for me, it is time to care a little more, a little more actively, for friends that are still here.
I feel a pain in my chest. Whether it is metaphorical or physical I no longer know.
(Written in a trance all day yesterday)